Histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends. – Alexander Pope
In January of 2003, soon after I had bought my country property, a spotted dog showed up while we were putting up the shop. She was in heat, the neighbor’s dog Stampy (yes, he was named for Bart Simpson’s elephant) paid court to her, and she started spending her nights under our house. At first I referred to her as “Stampy’s lady friend”, which was soon shortened to “Lady” when we decided to let her stay. When it was time for her to whelp I started shutting her in the shop at night (we set up a wooden frame with blankets for her), and she had eight puppies in the wee small hours of March 10th. Within a few months, though, we knew something weird was going on; Lady would amble off with the pups into the woods and come back with one fewer than before. She lost three that way; we’ve never been sure if she was doing it on purpose because she sensed something was wrong with them, or if it was just the way of things, but I wasn’t going to let it continue.
Accordingly, I established the procedure we followed thereafter: Lady and the pups could never be loose at the same time. When she was out alone she was fine, and when the pups were out without her that was fine too. But if she got loose at the same time as they did, the whole pack would take off and not be seen until very late at night (or, in later years, even the next day). When they were all together it was like the pack instinct took over, and their normal obedient ways cast to the winds. And whenever it happened I would never sleep well until they were home safe. There was plenty to worry about; this area is full of predators, and while they were more than a match for coyotes there are also cougars, rattlesnakes and other dangerous animals.
On top of all that, there was the epilepsy. Oreo had it worst; she started having grand mal seizures after her first year, and eventually died from them. But Stampy, Jr and Caramel also had it in less severe form; Stampy had petit mal seizures from time to time, and though Caramel never had any obvious seizures she would often have episodes where she seemed upset or frightened of something the other dogs didn’t notice, most likely some feeling inside her. After Oreo died, we were down to just the three, Lady, Stampy Jr and Caramel; one of the others had been given away, and Damsel met with some accident before she turned one and never came home. By this point, we had the grim joke that Lady was under a curse; four of her pups had met with unknown dooms, one had perished from a chronic illness and the remaining two seemed marked.
But as the years rolled by, my fears abated somewhat; it seemed the remaining three would live out normal lives. Except for that strange thing about not being able to let them out at the same time, they were friendly, affectionate, obedient dogs; Lady went everywhere with Grace, and was probably the best-known dog in the whole county. And though Stampy (the largest of the three at 40 kg) was an accomplished coyote-killer, with humans he was amazingly docile. He and Caramel had been inseparable since birth, and though she often gave him grief over taking up too much space in the doghouse, he was very protective of his little sister.
Then just a year ago, the curse seemed to return with a vengeance. They were all getting on in years; the vet figured Lady had been about a year old when she had the puppies, and they were now ten. Like many large dogs, Stampy had become arthritic; we were giving him medicine that seemed to ease his pain, but he had still slowed down considerably. And though Caramel (who only weighed about 30 kg) had no such symptoms, she rarely wandered far from her brother. Neither of them hesitated, though, when one day last July a lone coyote wandered near where Grace was working, in broad daylight; Stampy and Caramel gave chase and Lady got so agitated she managed to break her leash and follow…trailing a long length of leash into the woods and ignoring Grace’s commands to stop (as was typical when the three were loose together). When Grace told me what had happened my heart sunk; I knew a long leash dragged into thick woods was a death-sentence. We searched for hours, and then Grace drove around the whole area calling her for days, hoping against hope she would hear her barking and could go to her aid. It was no use; we never saw her again, and I only hope the coyotes got her quickly because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.
Last winter seemed especially hard on Stampy; even with the medicine he seemed constantly in low-level pain, and began to move more slowly and awkwardly. Still, he greeted me every morning with wagging tail when I came outside to let them off of the porch for the day. But on March 21st, just eleven days after his eleventh birthday, I saw him for the last time; the others were back from their morning run long before noon, but Stampy was not with them. We called his name repeatedly; again, Grace drove around looking for him. And again, it was no use. Maybe he attacked another animal he was no longer young and strong enough to defeat; maybe he just went off to die as animals sometimes do. But as with his mother, it was the uncertainty that was the hardest part. Death, as the Bard said, will come when it will come; it’s not knowing a friend’s fate that’s unbearable.
After losing her lifelong companion, Caramel just wasn’t the same; she seemed to grow old overnight, and no longer went off the porch much unless she was following one of us. Grace noticed that she was cleaning her bottom a lot more than she used to, and fussing with it as though it bothered her; of course neither of us thought much about that at the time, but it sprang immediately to mind when Grace called me on the first leg of my tour to tell me that she had stopped eating and seemed to be straining every time she went to poop. The vet discovered an intestinal blockage and some swelling, but even after enemas and antibiotics her appetite and bowel movements failed to return to normal. Grace discovered the only thing that would tempt her to eat was pure meat, but even then she wouldn’t take enough to really sustain a dog her size. By the time I got home on June 28th she was badly emaciated, like a recently-rescued stray; I cried that night, because I knew what was coming. We took her back to the vet first thing the following Monday, and an examination revealed the underlying problem: cancer of the anal glands, and in a fairly advanced state. I held her as the vet did what needed to be done, and the last of her doomed line went peacefully to sleep in my arms.
When we lost Lady last summer, something kept me from writing about it; the same thing happened when we lost Stampy in March. But this time it was different. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that with Caramel at least, I absolutely knew she was dead, whereas with the others there was no real closure. Or perhaps I realized deep down that they would all follow one another into the Beyond as closely as they had followed one another in life. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve lost three dear friends in much too short a time, and though it’s hard to type this through my tears, I felt their loyalty deserved the only memorial I know how to give them. Requiescat in pace, pups; the curse at last is done.